I’ll be honest. When I first heard of the proposal for full-day kindergarten at in, my initial thought was, “Where were you four years ago, when my youngest was still in preschool?” As a parent of a 5th, 3rd, and 1st grader, it would be easy for me to dismiss the idea now. I’m not directly going to benefit, so who cares?
Full-day kindergarten, however, does not cater to a select few, namely those moms of toddlers who need more than 2.75 hours a day to make it to the gym and nail salon, as some opponents have suggested. Nor is it for working moms in need of child care. The time and research our superintendent Dr. Carolyn Kossack, the Board of Education, and 95 volunteers have invested during the past four years in response to a community request is not about making a mom’s life easier (because we moms know a few extra hours a day is not enough to do that).
Full-day kindergarten is a plan whose time has come for the majority of school districts in New Jersey. In fact, Little Silver is among the 27 percent of districts in our state that still only offer a half-day program. In our immediate area, we are being left behind. Rumson, Shrewsbury, Monmouth Beach, Red Bank, , Middletown, and Long Branch all have it.
Why have the majority of districts in New Jersey—70 percent of them—moved to full-day kindergarten? Because it’s part of every community’s responsibility to respond to and progress with developing standards in education. The expectations of what children must accomplish today are different from two years ago, let alone 20 years ago. In June 2010, New Jersey adopted the Common Core State Standards, “a state-led initiative that aims to establish basic, uniform education requirements across the country,” according to the New Jersey School Boards Association. Little Silver has been directed to align our K-2 curricula with these standards by 2012. If anything, we should applaud Dr. Kossack and the Board of Ed for keeping pace with the rigorous demands and for ensuring our school district follows suit.
To understand what school districts and teachers are facing, we should all review those standards, which can be accessed here (and give ourselves plenty of time to read through them because the two documents are lengthy and detailed). For “English Language Arts,” there are 46 standards for kindergartners. To give you an idea, here’s a sample of one of the 10 reading standards for “Literature.” Students should be able to “with prompting and support, compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in familiar stories.” One of the 10 standards for “Writing” states that students should “use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book.” And one of the six for “Speaking & Listening” states that students should “participate in collaborative conversations with diverse partners about kindergarten topics and texts with peers and adults in small and larger groups,” following agreed-upon rules for discussions.
And then there is a whole other document for “Mathematics Standards,” which lists 22 standards. The categories for kindergarten include: Counting and Cardinality; Operations & Algebraic Thinking; Numbers & Operations in Base Ten; Measurement & Data; and Geometry. An example under “Geometry” states that students should “analyze and compare two- and three-dimensional shapes, in different sizes and orientations, using informal language to describe their similarities, differences, parts (e.g. number of sides and vertices/corners) and other attributes (e.g. having sides of equal lengths).
So if the majority of the 2.75 hours is dedicated to academic instruction in order to align with these comprehensive standards, what gets bumped? Pretty much all the things that make kindergarten, kindergarten. Perhaps we should take a look at the book All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a humorous yet poignant look at how life’s lessons are first introduced in the kindergarten classroom. Borrowing from the author, Robert Fulghum, in kindergarten we learn how to share blocks, to color inside (or outside) of the lines, to clean up after ourselves and put our toys away. We learn not to hit or bite. We play make believe and dress up, and we laugh, sing, and dance. And through our impromptu playful interactions and natural conversations, we learn the art of compromise and how not to hurt someone’s feelings (or how to say we’re sorry if we do). These are essential skills that cannot be measured in any standardized test but are equally, if not more, important, laying the foundation for productive classroom and life experiences later on.
As it stands now, our kindergartners do not get enough free play or down time. They are hurried in, shuffled off to their “specials,” and still expected to learn everything that students in full-day programs learn. And the onus falls on our teachers to cram in all of that instruction with little room to encourage open, creative play.
So how do we combine academic instruction that meets with the new standards and all the play- based learning that fosters creativity and teaches socialization skills? According to the Department of Education and other educational research, a high-quality kindergarten program in the 21st century should look like this: morning meetings; shared reading; guided reading; choice time; investigations/project work; sharing; snack; outdoor recess; math explorations; lunch; read-alouds; writing workshop; specials; and end-of-day sharing.
Yes, this schedule may seem like a lot for five- and six-year-olds, but many children walk into kindergarten armed and ready for it, even craving it. Most of our children have already managed these types of schedules in the various preschools in our area, which are holding longer sessions infused with more academic instruction. How can our children attend three, four, sometimes five hours of preschool a day only to take a step back at Point Road? Our half-day program is like pushing a pause button on our children’s education. A pause button during a critical year of their academic and social development. To give our children all of the fundamental experiences they need today, we must have full-day kindergarten.
Many opponents argue from strictly a fiscal lens. And we proponents get that. We too are concerned about how full-day kindergarten will impact our tax bills. Dr. Kossack explained that our district needs to go out for a $750,000 referendum. (The project is estimated to cost $1 million to build two new classroom; the district will take $250,000 from a capital reserve account.) The tax on this debt service is $25 a year for the next 15 years for the average household. Yes, that’s half of what it costs to take a family of four to the movies (not including popcorn!).
And true, that’s not the only expense associated with this project. There are future financial implications of adding two new teachers (salaries, benefits) and utilities and maintenance for two new classrooms. These factors will impact the annual operating budget of our tax bill, but this part is already affected every year by a number of variables. Teachers with higher salaries retire and teachers at a lower pay scale are hired. This year we’ve had a surprisingly warm winter season, which has a positive effect on our heating bill vs. our budget. These and other costs fluctuate year to year and must be kept within the 2 percent tax cap Governor Chris Christie imposed. And sure, Governor Christie could move on and another governor with a different tax ideology could take his place. But we, as a community, can continue to stay frozen based on all the “what ifs” or we can shift our view by looking at our responsibility to our children and move forward to better prepare them for the demands of 21st century schooling.
Some opponents have suggested we postpone this project, asserting it is not the best economic climate to incur debt, especially facing anticipated housing revaluations this summer. But is there ever a good time for any major decision? What if we had used that logic when planning a wedding, buying a house, or having children? It’s difficult for us to predict our economic future because we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone a year from now. I empathize with the inclination to be financially prudent in light of the unknown. Two years ago, I had no idea I would be a divorced, single mom with three kids, forced to sell my house and go back to work. And yet, I am voting for the kindergarten referendum.
Because in my opinion, this decision is really about our community’s values and our priorities when it comes to educating our children. Little Silver has always attracted highly educated professionals who want nothing but the best education for our children. This has enabled our property values to remain
relatively high, even in a crumbling housing market. Most, if not all, of us are pleased with the quality of education our children receive, and Little Silver students have been deemed the “cream of the crop.”
But if standards evolve and we do not, we can find ourselves two steps behind, which translates into our children being behind their neighboring peers in school. Do we really want to fast-forward five years from now and face that reality?
I ask that we not look at this proposal as a personal financial attack but look at it as a way to pay it forward to the next generation of children (who, I might add, will be taking care of us someday). If we shut down a project whose core value is the best interest of our children, what kind of message are we sending about what’s most important to our community?
Dr. Kossack, the Board of Education, and members of our community have spent years researching and weighing the academic and social benefits, visiting other schools with full-day programs, going back to the drawing board again and again with consultants for the most cost-effective use of our school building’s space. They have done their due diligence, and now it’s up to us to make it happen.
I urge you to vote “Yes” for the referendum on March 13. By saying “Yes,” you are investing in our children and in our community. And that’s the smartest investment you can make.
Thank you for your time and attention to this very important and crucial referendum. For more information on the Common Core State Standards, please click here. For more information on the referendum, including a Fact Sheet and Q & A, please click here.
Jennifer Chauhan is a former high school English teacher with an M.A. in English Education from Teachers College, Columbia University.